Screens at CIFF: 10/13 & 10/15 & 10/16
World premiere: 1 February, 2014, Gérardmer International Fantastic Film Festival

The first act of Ablations is great. Maybe not great. But promising - hella promising. A man wakes up on the bank of a river, the day after a huge bender, and his kidney's missing. He wants it back - at the very least, he wants to know who took it. Original it ain't, but it's creepy, mysterious, uncomfortably direct in prodding whatever psychological safeguards keep us from always thinking about the pieces of meat sitting inside our bodies and regulating all of our systems, and being all "no, I want you to really think about your organs. Right now. Think about how squishy and tender they are". And it's punctuated by a magnificent scene in which our unlikable protagonist and antihero, Pastor (Denis Ménochet), visits a whore bar and starts to lose his tether on reality completely, as the mere fact of sexually attractive women triggers some kind of revulsive fit that proves, above all things that director Arnold de Parscau has been studying his David Lynch - it feels like an outtake from Twin Peaks in all the best ways. Right about the time this scene was crescendoing, the film had me firmly in the palm of its hand, which makes it all the sadder and more disappointing, and honestly a little weird, that this is exactly the point where it looks around, decides that it has been so far spending far too much time portraying reasonable human behavior that's at least persuasive in the context of a genre film, and that the time has come to make every last member of the cast start behaving like their solitary motivation in life is that they read the last scene of the screenplay and want to make sure they get to it properly. Except maybe Pastor's wife, Léa (the much overqualified Virginie Ledoyen), whose arc over the course of the movie is from a certain curiosity about what the heck is going on, towards angry confusion, and finally desperate, wheedling begging that she'll forgive everything if things will just stop being so bizarre and make any kind of sense again. In which regard she is an ideal surrogate for the viewer.

Basically, the film's problem is simple, easily resolved, and ignored until it becomes an enormous, film-consuming cancer: Pastor never tells his wife or the police that his kidney has gone missing. Why the hell he doesn't tell the police, I can't even suppose; he doesn't tell his wife, I think because then she'd find out that he has no erotic attachment to her and either has been cheating or has been planning to. Which means that by the halfway point, when she starts furiously accusing him of cheating on her, he really has nothing left to lose.

So, I called this a film-consuming flaw, because it is one of the fundamental driving forces behind every scene and plot development, and it makes no sense. All it does is to make Pastor seem like a suspicious, deeply unlikable creep long before the story starts to demand that he be one, and it makes it impossible to feel more than the most detached interest in what he's going through, or to care to any significant degree if he finds what he's looking for. The film indicates, somewhere along the way that the people who took his kidney - a gruff old grandpa type (Philippe Nahon) and his religiously ecstatic assistant (Yolande Moreau) - left him with a drug in his bloodstream that makes people act erratic and unnecessarily violent, but if that's going to start from the first scene (and it does), the film has denied us the baseline from which its subsequent madness develops. This makes it difficult to track how mad vs. stable Pastor or the film as a whole is at any point, and thus hard to care, and we're right back to where we just were.

The film is withholding, in a most icily French way; but you can eventually withhold so much that there's nothing left to grapple with besides innuendo and a protagonist made up entirely of acute surfaces. I won't get into the whole matter of how the film deliberately leaves it unclear why things have happened, and whether or not evil has been done (also in a most French sort of way), because there's no honor in complaining that a film is obscure when the obscurity is the point (I suppose the idea being, in part, that if Pastor can't grasp the full scale of the events that have happened, neither should we). But coming at the end of a film that has so fully failed to engage with the way that actual humans behave in any given situation, whether it's Mad Pastor or the incoherent arc laden atop his Gal Friday, a doctor and former lover named Anna (Florence Thomassin), the inconclusive finale feels like it's part of an overall scheme of writer Benoît Delépine not having a handle on his script, more than it ever feels like conscious artistic choices being made. The film has a brooding style that I like, and it has that uncomfortable fleshiness, which I also like, but it comes at the cost of having absolutely nothing going on below the surface that it's at all possible to connect with. There are plenty of films to have survived that kind of thing, but Ablations is too scattered and messy in its conception, and the style simply isn't orginal enough to compensate for all the gloomy silliness.